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Wednesday 4th September, 2013

Zen & the Non-functional Pedestrian Crossing Button

Like you, I’m a thinking, feeling human being.

And just like you, I like to think that I’m not easily duped into behaviour that has no useful or meaningful end result.

So I was tickled by a BBC article that revealed that the buttons on some pedestrian road crossings around the UK have absolutely no effect on the flow of traffic.

Why? Because on some occassions on some crossings the lights are on a timer.

It’s no big deal. The lights change eventually and we safely cross the road.

But it’s the principle of the thing. No-one likes to feel that they have been duped into behaving mindlessly.

And yet, behaving without conscious thought is something all of us do all of the time, freeing our brains up to process fresh thoughts or to focus on less well-practised activities. In this respect, the pedestrian button that sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t but always sees us safety to the other side of the road fulfils a crucial role in our daily lives. It isn’t an evil button, created by evil people who want to exercise mind control. It’s a mechanism designed thoughtfully to enable us to get across the road safely without having to think about it too much.

People like learning but we rely on convention. When things don’t work the way we expect them to we are forced to devote additional brain power to thinking about those things and this upsets and annoys us, if only for a brief time.

Knowing all of this is of immense help to the public speaker.

Think of the conventions that enable your audience to get the most from your performance, the things they expect and without which they would feel uncomfortable, uneasy, perhaps even angry.

  • Comfortable chairs to sit on, nicely spaced with plenty of leg room;
  • Quiet;
  • Starting and finishing on time.

Simple. Repetitive. Expected. And essential.

If you were to deviate from any of these three expectations your audience will not be happy.

They will be irritated because you have distracted them with trivial things, causing them to think about stuff they can usually deal with on ‘mental auto-pilot’. And this matters to you, because an audience that is distracted is an audience that is not giving its full attention to you.

Conversely, get these three basic things right, and your audience will be relaxed and at ease with themselves and with you.

So help your audience to feel Zen:

  • Comfortable chairs to sit on, nicely spaced with plenty of leg room;
  • Quiet;
  • Starting and finishing on time.

And just as the non-functional pedestrian crossing button cleverly keeps pedestrians feeling safe and in control so they can cross a busy road without having to think about it too much, you’ll provide your audience with the right environment and maxium brain processing capacity to enjoy, understand and apply what you have to tell them.

Categories: Attention, Big ideas, Think differently

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